Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Too Many Carbs?

A friend recently suggested that my family eats too many carbs and not enough protein. Now, I know that higher protein diets have been in vogue for the past decade or so, but I don't think we eat too many carbs.

Carbs get a bad rap, but I think that is because the standard American diet can be carb heavy without being nutrient dense. If we were filling up on potato chips, white bread, ice cream, and cookies I might agree with my friend that my family eats too many carbs.

Instead, our carb heavy diet is rich in fresh fruits and whole grains, along with limited unrefined sweeteners. Breakfast might be a smoothie overflowing with fresh fruits, hemp seed, and flax seed, plus 100% whole grain toast spread with peanut butter. Lunch (our main meal) is usually based on legumes and whole grains plus a couple of vegetable side dishes. Dinner is usually big green salads with lots of veggies, plus sandwiches on 100% whole grain bread. Those sandwiches might be peanut butter or perhaps a nice chickpea-avocado spread, adding yet more protein. And of course, the boys are teens, so they snack on fruit, nuts, and whole grain foods all day long.

Some people see that and think we don't get enough protein, but the reality is that grains, legumes, nuts, fruits, and vegetable all have protein! When I take the time to track protein intake I find that my vegan teen athletes are consuming about 80g per day, and that number goes up during race season when they drink protein recovery drinks.

Sure, a 6 ounce steak has 42 grams of protein, whereas pinto beans have 15 grams per cooked cup, and brown rice 5 grams per cooked cup. But on a whole foods plant based diet every meal is an opportunity to take in quality nutrients. On a standard American diet breakfast might be 1 cup of corn flakes with 1 cup of skim milk, for a total of about 15 grams of protein. One of our smoothies has 15 grams of protein just in hemp seed alone, plus the protein in the flax seed and fruit, and our smoothies have far more other nutrients. Then you add the protein in their peanut butter toast, another 24 grams between the 100% whole wheat bread and the peanut butter (my boys do not go skimpy on the peanut butter!). Their breakfast has at least 40 grams of protein, which is close to their dietary needs for the entire day (teen boys need about 52 grams of protein daily).

I don't eat nearly as much food as they do, but I don't need as much protein, either.

Of course, we don't even know how real these numbers are! A whole-istic view of health is that eating whole, plant based foods provides us with all the nutrients we need. Even if one chooses to eat meat and fish, eating whole grains and lots of vegetables and fruits makes it almost impossible to be deficient in any nutrient, macro or micro, with the exception of vitamin D and that's because our bodies make vitamin D.

(Oh, and that pesky rumor that plant based eaters need to supplement with B12? Even my very mainstream doctor says that current research considers it unnecessary. I'm not saying to stop if you've been advised to take B12 - do what your health care professional says. But if not, do some research into the supplements industry and really think about whether getting vitamins from any source other than food makes sense to you. Our choice is not to supplement and to have annual blood tests to check our levels of various nutrients.)

Now, not every one eats a plant based diet! I wrote this post because people who are choosing frugality often find themselves eating less meat and dairy and more grains and legumes, and I wanted to show how these foods do provide all the necessary protein. You don't even have to worry about combining specific foods at each meal to make complete proteins; over the course of the day and week your body will get everything that it needs.

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